Commentary on James 5:7-10
In the third Sunday of Advent, the epistle reading shifts from Paul’s letter to the Romans, to the Epistle of James. Paul and James have often been contrasted with each other,
particularly in regard to their attitudes towards the relationship between faith and works. Yet both are concerned with the unity and health of their congregations.
Paul warns against aspects of the Mosaic Law that divide Jewish and Gentile Christians, such as circumcision, food laws and Sabbath observance. James also is concerned about divisions between members of the assembly of faith, but the divisions that worry him are between rich Christians and poor Christians. He warns against favoritism towards rich church members (2:1-9), slander (3:1-12), greed, violence and fraud (4:1-3; 5:1-5). All of these warnings, addressed to everyone in the fellowship, and addressed specifically to the “rich” (5:1-6), precede the passage in today’s lesson and set a context for the exhortation to “be patient” (5:7).
This context is important, because without such warnings addressed to the “haves,” exhorting the “have-nots” to be patient can be a form of continuing oppression. Imagine, for example, telling the refugees in Darfur to be patient while they are being slaughtered. Or recall Martin Luther King’s response to the clergy of Birmingham, who counseled more patience on the part of Black people fighting segregation. It matters a great deal who counsels “patience,” in what context, and to what end. James first pronounces God’s judgment on greed and exploitation, before he encourages those who are suffering, with the promise that “the day of the Lord is at hand” (5:8).
Patience is the theme for today. What is “patience?” In the first place, it is an alternative to the life of grasping and exploitation that James condemns in 5:1-6. Patience makes possible a life of deferred gratification, waiting for fruit to ripen before harvesting it. It is difficult to imagine a more countercultural way to live in our materialistic, fast-paced society. I grew up with “snail-mail;” now I’m impatient if e-mail takes more than a few seconds.
Many years ago I heard a seminary professor say, “We all want to make this world our Zion.” We all want to make our corner of the world into the promised land, and we want it NOW! The costs of our impatience are enormous, from our gluttony for oil, to our degradation of the environment, to radical inequalities in the distribution of the world’s goods. No wonder James, concerned for the welfare of the “have-nots,” counsels patience. Knowing that this life is not all that there is, and that God’s future is far better than we can imagine, makes possible a life of open-handed generosity. Patience includes the capacity to forego economic gain as a guide and motivation for our actions.
There is a second aspect of James’ teaching, which we might call the “politics of patience.” He tells his hearers not to “grumble” against each other. The Greek word can also be translated as “groan in travail,” the way a woman in childbirth groans. Paul uses it to describe the way all creation groans together, eager to be freed from “its bondage to decay” (Romans 8:21-23). Christians are not to stand aside from that groaning and pain and yearning, but to share with all humanity in suffering and hoping for God’s salvation.
In contrast with such solidarity in suffering, James warns his hearers against turning their pain, their “groans,” against each other. It is easy, when we are experiencing hard times, to become bitter and mutually judgmental, or simply to stop going to church. How many people quietly drop out of Sunday morning worship when they go through intense personal crises, such as divorce or death or conflict with their children? How many people put on a pious public Sunday morning face because they fear the judgment of their Christian brothers and sisters?
Patience involves a capacity to suspend such judgment, to live with unresolved problems and relationships. We do not need to impose a quick fix on messy situations; rather, because we live in the light of God’s judgment and salvation, our job is to cultivate mutual understanding. We don’t have to make this world our Zion, we don’t have to force events into a situation favorable to us, or to manipulate relationships in order to get what we think we want. Rather, we have the room and time to grow into the kind of fellowship James describes in 5:13-20. At the heart of that fellowship is the honesty enjoined in 5:16: “confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed.”
Thus, thirdly, patience is essential to the process of becoming a peacemaker. The premature resolution of conflict usually inflicts some kind of violence on one of the parties involved, by silencing them. The patience to listen, to withhold judgment, to attend to each person’s or group’s or country’s concerns, is a major part of diplomacy, whether in marriage counseling, family life, church politics, or international relations. James calls this kind of diplomacy the “wisdom from above,” which is “pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, without uncertainty or insincerity” (3:17). And he adds, “And the harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace” (3:18).
According to some early Christian traditions, the author of this treatise is James the brother of the Lord. If so, this is the same James who was the leader of the church in Jerusalem (Acts 15:13-21), whom Paul visited there (Galatians 1:19; 2:9, 12), and who was especially concerned for the welfare of the poor (Galatians 2:10). Whether or not this is the same person, there are many connections between James’ teaching and those of Jesus. For our lesson today, we might think of the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20); “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9).